Alvin Duskin, an accomplished entrepreneur and environmental activist who settled in Tomales in the 2000s, died on July 25. He was 90 years old. Alvin was known for his emotional depth, curiosity and stories, which told of his decades of work promoting alternative energy, fighting development, and protesting war.
“What stands out to me is not one particular memory, but just his warmth,” said David Duskin, one of Alvin’s six children. “His hands. The way he would hug you. His embrace. People, even people that had just met him, noticed that he had a warmth about him. He was enthusiastic about what you were into, and people would come away feeling like ‘He’s rooting for me.’”
Alvin was born in San Francisco and grew up with a sister, Sylvia, and the family’s sweater factory business. He liked to tell his grandchildren that he maintained a B average in high school without taking home a single book.
In 1948, he enrolled at Stanford University, where he realized his study habits were not up to par. After two years, he transferred to San Francisco State, where he met his first wife, Constance Slater. He later returned to Stanford to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, which turned into a lifelong study.
When his school funding through the G.I. Bill was drained, Alvin became a part-time student and worked in the family business. Soon after, his first two children, Marcus and Laura, were born. In the late 50s, Alvin earned his teaching credentials and taught at San Francisco State before accepting a position as dean of the tuition-free Emerson College, later renamed the New School of San Francisco, in 1960.
Education was vital to Alvin. He was always reading, sniffing around for what was needed next.
But although Alvin would later emphasize education to his children and grandchildren, positions in education didn’t always pay the bills. In 1960, his third child, Sarah, was born. In search of more income, he created his own sweater business on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, called the Alvin Duskin Company.
While he was cultivating the business, Alvin was also going through a divorce. In the late 60s, he met Sara Urquhart, and convinced her to run the design department. Soon after, he released his most popular piece, the Peace Dress.
The Vietnam War was drawing backlash across the country, and the sweater dress, which was decorated in peace symbols, became an instant hit. It was a springboard for Alvin’s entrepreneurial and alternative energy ventures.
He and Sara married in 1971. They would stay together for 50 years, and raise three children, Ceres, David and Zoe.
Over the next five decades, Alvin delved into the anti-nuclear movement, fought plans for high-rise buildings in San Francisco, worked as a senior aide in the United States Senate for energy legislation, co-founded U.S. Windpower and helped build one of the country’s first wind power farms along the Altamont Pass.
In the late 80s, Alvin began advocating for hydropower and developed industrial joint ventures involving Russian companies. Continuing with his environmental efforts, he delved into flywheel energy technology with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Stanford, founded a project to put out coal fires in Jharkhand, India, and in his later years invested in biochar, a charcoal soil-additive, through his company Corigin Solutions.
His first major accomplishment as an activist was to halt the sale of Alcatraz. Jerry Mander, a friend, activist and founder of the nonprofit advertising firm Public Interest Communications, remembers the day the deal went down. Alvin walked into Rico’s Café, where Mr. Mander, whom he had previously met at parties, and Warren Hinckle were discussing how to raise awareness about the impending sale of Alcatraz.
Mr. Mander waved Alvin over and asked him if he wanted two things: to be famous and to finance some ads on local political matters of great importance. Alvin agreed without hesitation, putting up $30,000 for an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The ad read, “A little bit of Texas right here in the Bay—as big a steal as Manhattan Island.” A Texas oil tycoon had gained approval to turn the former prison into a museum and theme park. Alvin’s campaign was so persuasive that the sale was reversed. He was hooked.
“He loved it so much,” Mr. Mander said. “He poured himself into these battles. “If he was alive for another few months, he probably would have found a few more thousand to spend on another campaign.”
Alvin crusaded against the Peripheral Canal, led anti-war rallies and championed housing rights. Some of his efforts didn’t work out. He tried three times to get measures passed that would have limited the height of buildings in San Francisco. In the end, residential neighborhoods were saved but skyscrapers were allowed in the city’s financial districts.
Alvin wasn’t afraid to fail, instead viewing failure as part of the process and appreciating that it would “lead to the next great thing,” David said. He encouraged his children and grandchildren to pursue their passions, Sara said.
At the same time, he didn’t take himself too seriously. Around the dinner table, he was teased for telling grandiose stories in which he somehow always ended up the hero.
“He had a big ego, but he also thought it was sort of hilarious,” David said. “He couldn’t brag without snickering at the same time because he thought it was all kind of a joke. He thought it was so funny, like he had tricked the whole world: They had all respected this guy who was sort of a trickster.”
Alvin found another medium for his stories through his involvement in the Tomales Writers Group. In 2011, he and Sara kept the group from dissolving when the founder passed away. The couple began hosting the meetings in their home, the seats at their kitchen table filled with aspirational writers and memoirists.
As Alvin got older, he started to sit down, look around and contemplate more often.
“He would say, ‘I’m looking at the trees,’” David said. “And not just in a flip sort of way, but it was really significant to him. He was sort of picking up on something that he had missed. His life had been so active, even up to the last couple of years.”
He added, “He’s an accomplished person, and there’s a big fat resume and most people know him that way. But the human being that would sit there and open a book and read it to my kids—put his arm around my sons and read the book and they’d be touching his marvelous, big, warm hands and he had this great baritone voice and they just soaked it up—that was the other part of him, which is as valuable as any of the rest. It’s just rare to get a human that is accomplished professionally, but then is also a really kind and loving person at the same time.”
Alvin did not want a memorial service. Sara said that all Alvin asked was that people take a risk and do something that helps keep the planet moving forward.
Alvin Duskin is survived by Sara, his children Marcus, Laura, Sarah, Ceres, David and Zoe, their partners, his 12 grandchildren, his community and his lifelong friends.